A Singaporean Kopitiam
by Anne K Wong
The small coffee shop or kopitiam as the Singaporeans call it, was tucked away on a little side street around the corner from my hotel. I had just arrived from Vancouver the night before and unable to sleep, decided to explore my surroundings. It was early in the morning and there were only two customers seated at one of the tables, sipping their coffee and reading the newspaper. Judging by the décor, the kopitiam must have started in the 1950’s and not much has changed since. The pictures on the walls were faded and hung crookedly on their worn frames. The wobbly ceiling fans turned languidly. The plaster walls were yellowed with age.
A small elderly woman smiled at me as I approached the counter. Behind her was a large old metal stove top grill on which several stainless steel canisters of tea (teh) and coffee (kopi) were being heated and bread toasted. Her husband, a white-haired man in his eighties and a pronounced stoop, was standing at the grill, carefully turning over the thickly sliced white bread with tongs so they would not burn. From time to time, he would reach out to dip up and down the cloth tea strainers steeping in the canisters. His movements were slow and deliberate and I could see the tremor in his knobbly gnarled hands as he worked. His creased short sleeved shirt hung loosely around his thin shoulders and his baggy trousers were cinched by a thick belt around his waistline. He did not look up from his work.
There was only one thing they serve in this kopitiam, and that was the traditional Singaporean breakfast with soft boiled eggs, kaya toast and tea (teh) or coffee (kopi). Kaya is a rich sweet coconut jam, common in Southeast Asia, flavoured with floral herbaceous pandan leaves.
The wife gestured for me to take a seat at a table. A few more regulars drifted into the shop, calling out their hellos. The wife greeted them with cheerful chatter but the elderly man never said a word or looked up from his work.
Finally, breakfast arrived, barely cooked eggs in a saucer, strong dark coffee in a chipped ceramic cup and the kaya toast. The toast was raggedly torn into uneven finger-like pieces, almost as if a child had clumsily used a plastic knife. The wife explained apologetically, “My husband had a stroke a few years ago but he wants to keep on working”.
Looking at the gnarled old man, hunched over the stove, carefully turning over the bread, layering the kaya and butter and cutting the bread with tremulous hands, I realised how much history went into making this breakfast. At that moment, the two pieces of white bread burnt with grill marks, sandwiching a thick layer of golden sweet sticky kaya and slices of butter, paired with the chocolatey bitterness of the coffee and creaminess of the eggs were one of the most delicious and indulgent meals I have ever had. I felt an incredible sense of gratitude for the devotion with which this simple breakfast was made in this humble Singaporean kopitiam.
Anne Wong is a physician, educator and lifelong learner. Her travels have inspired a deep respect for the many ways of being in the world and for the small precious moments in life.
Twitter handle: @annekwong
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